After all of the speculation and adamant proclamations by analysts that the San Francisco 49ers would use the third overall pick of the NFL draft on Alabama quarterback Mac Jones, draft day finally arrived, and with it came the selection that stunned many around the league but felt just right for Niners brass.
San Francisco, one of the NFL’s most storied franchises, snatched up one of the draft’s great mysteries in North Dakota State’s Trey Lance and crowned him as the quarterback of the future.
The move proved surprising only because of all of the pre-draft smokescreens, which the 49ers welcomed. Coach Kyle Shanahan found all of the Jones projections comical, and he welcomed the freedom that the reports afforded general manager John Lynch and him to conduct their research on Lance.
“We weren’t going to look to correct that, at all,” Shanahan told reporters with a snicker.
The 49ers certainly did their homework on Jones. But something about that move never made complete sense because of the Alabama’s limited potential.
But when San Francisco decided to part with three first-round picks and a third-rounder so the team could move up to third overall, their intentions seemed clear: secure a truly transformative quarterback.
Lance, with his exceptional physical gifts and impressive mental makeup, potentially fits that bill.
The word “potentially” is key here. Because although special, Lance also is a project.
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But the 49ers did something modern NFL teams rarely do. Rather than grab a player that can help them right away, they made a heavy investment in a prospect whose best football could still be two or three years away.
But San Francisco made this selection because the exceptionally high ceiling that Lance seemingly boasts, along with the overall strength of their roster, fueled the belief that the franchise can afford patience in this area.
And thus ended the suspense surrounding the most intriguing selection of the 2021 draft.
Because the entire football world projected Trevor Lawrence to Jacksonville the moment the Jaguars secured the worst record of the 2020 season, and because Zach Wilson promptly seemed to lock himself in at the No. 2 spot thanks to an impressive pro day performance that followed a prolific college season, all eyes locked on the 49ers.
Would they use the No. 3 pick on Jones, who helped lead Alabama to a national title last season? Would they spend the pick on Justin Fields, who orchestrated two prolific seasons for Ohio State? Or did they want Lance, the North Dakota State product, who, although talented, had only one full season of starting experience, and in 2020 played just one game because his college opted out of a traditional season amid COVID-19 concerns?
Very little of this year’s pre-draft build-up seemed to make sense. Fields went from highly regarded immediately after the college season to heavily scrutinized and minimized, at least in the eyes of many draft analysts.
Jones, meanwhile, saw his popularity skyrocket. Lance largely remained a mystery because so few people had seen a significant portion of his tape.
When the 49ers’ brain trust studied the quarterbacks in the draft, they had a key decision to make: Go with a player like Jones, who ranked among the most consistent and pro-ready quarterbacks in the draft even though he possesses just average athleticism, or select a player with greater potential and superior physical traits?
They certainly found Jones impressive from a pocket presence standpoint. They also liked the consistency and accuracy that he displayed on deep passes. San Francisco’s talent evaluators even believed that Jones displayed quick feet and better athleticism than many gave him credit for.
However, Lance had more to offer.
When Shanahan and Co. studied Lance’s film and workouts, they came away impressed. He showed great flashes of arm talent. He displayed a natural throwing ability with a good base, which is highly important to Shanahan. The 49ers coaches liked Lance’s athleticism and mobility.
The 49ers understood, however, that Lance needs time to develop. He has only limited experience both on the high school and college levels. However, Lance still showed enough to sell the 49ers on his potential.
In addition to his size (6-4, 224 pounds) and throwing ability, Lance impressed with his mental makeup. And despite the limited experience, he consistently delivered big-time throws in college.
Now, it’s on Shanahan, offensive coordinator Mike McDaniel and quarterbacks coach Rich Scangarello to give Lance an all-encompassing education on NFL quarterbacking and position him to live up to his potential. That also means they must give him time. Fortunately for the 49ers, they have that.
Jimmy Garoppolo remains under contract for another two years, and shortly after the 49ers traded up from 12th to third overall, general manager John Lynch contacted the seven-year veteran to inform him that he remained a part of their plans.
In the final days leading up to the draft, rumors swirled that the 49ers planned on trading the oft-injured Garoppolo immediately following the draft, with Shanahan making a cryptic remark about not being able to say anything about a player’s future with any certainty. But shortly after their selection of Lance, Shanahan all but shot down any speculation that his starter in Super Bowl LIV is going anywhere.
Although the rookie is coming for his job, Garoppolo plays a vital role in Lance’s success.
Shanahan said expecting Lance to start at this point would mean putting him in a “very tough situation” because of all that he has to learn.
“We know where Jimmy is at,” Shanahan said. “It would be very stressful for us if Jimmy isn’t here. I expect Jimmy to be here and I’d be disappointed if he wasn’t.”
So the 49ers need Garoppolo to stay on the field and give Lance adequate time to acclimate to the pro game, because playing the young signal-caller before he’s ready could spell doom.
The day when Lance is ready to take over can’t come soon enough for Shanahan, though. He knows patience is a must here. But he’s already looking forward to expanding his play book by adding packages that take advantage of Lance’s abilities as a runner, “which I’ve always been intrigued with.”
Shanahan, of course, has displayed his creativity with a mobile quarterback. In Washington, he served as the architect of an offense that positioned Robert Griffin III for one of the most prolific (passing and running) seasons for a rookie quarterback in NFL history.
Lance joins a franchise with a rich history of elite quarterback play. In recent years, however, the 49ers have tried in vain to find a passer capable of taking up the mantle of Hall of Famers Joe Montana and Steve Young.
Shanahan anticipates the search stopping here.
“He’s a hell of a quarterback and someone I believe in,” the coach said, as if the investment made to position his team to take Lance and the actual selection didn’t clearly convey that.
Now, it’s on the franchise to give the young quarterback the support and guidance necessary to help him reach his rich potential.
Follow USA TODAY Sports NFL columnist Mike Jones on Twitter @ByMikeJones and listen to the Football Jones podcast on iTunes.